Uuno Klami (1900 – 1961) is considered by many as the finest 20th century, non-contemporary, Finnish composer after Jean Sibelius. Significantly, Klami’s musical style is far different from his illustrious contemporary (and in a sense, predecessor). Rather than attempt to succeed Sibelius’ “organic” methods or soundworlds, which have never been matched, Klami’s music is much closer to what most listeners would term “20th century”. At the same time, it is highly original and very atmospheric. In some cases, as in his well-known Sea Pictures, it is all atmosphere.
The ballet Pyörteitä, or “Whirls“, was being written around the end of the 1950s, but left incomplete. Kalevi Aho (b.1949), fast becoming Finland’s completor of unfinished works, writes in his notes that this is “one of the most enigmatic works of large-scale Finnish music.” When I said that Klami’s music is “atmospheric”, I was referring to his incredible skill for creating clearly-constructed sound paintings of such nature – enigmatic.
It is not certain whether the work, planned in three acts, 105 minutes total, was ever completed. After Klami’s death in 1961, the music was lost – until the rehearsal scores of the first two acts were were located in the Finnish National Opera archives in 1981. In 1988, Kalevi Aho (an eminent composer himself) orchestrated the first act. In his notes, he openly admits that the arrangement is “rather free … this orchestration does not claim to be in Klami’s authentic style – it attempts by means of its orchestration to become more of a symphonic whole, and also a viable concert work. Nevertheless the point of departure for the orchestration was an aspiration to do the greatest possible justice to the composer’s far-reaching musical vision.”
Let’s not mind the discrepancies over authenticity. The result is a very vivid and colourful score. Despite the myriad of instrumental hues, including a huge array of percussion and full range of winds, the amazing thing about the score is its incredibly transparent architecture. This is made even more remarkable by the clarity of the BIS recording, plus the committed playing and precision of the Lahti Symphony.
Klami’s impulse to write the ballet was his encounter of a plan in the 1940s for a ballet based on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. One theme was the forging of the Sampo, a mysterious object of the Kalevala which encapsulated eternal paradise. I tend to think of it as a kind of Finnish “holy grail”. Another aspect of the story is the elements of nature.
The titles of the music give an idea of its imagery: “The Flames Awake” in an ominous quiet march on bassoons, bass clarinet, flute and other winds. Three “Dances of the Flames” show off the intricate orchestration – the “Return of the Flames/Dance of the Flames II” is particularly enchanting with its solos for orchestral piano, glockenspiel and winds.
The magical “Dance of the Water/Song of the Waves” floats mystically and gradually gains in tide – its impressionistic haze of flutes is highly reminiscent of Uranus from Holst’s Planets. The fast pieces are appropriately hectic but highly disciplined pieces, and again the clean architecture of the scoring is magnificent.
Throughout, I do hear hints of Shostakovich (the mocking “War Dance”), Stravinsky and even Debussy. To be fair to all, I think it’s safe to say that the material is undoubtably Klami’s, but the orchestration is a a credit to Aho. In any case, it is a very original Klami/Aho collaboration and brilliant is my final verdict. The score has yet to be choreographed into a ballet – a very tantalizing thought.
The score of the Violin Concerto, op.32 (1940-3) too was lost after it was played in Stockholm in 1944. By the time it was rediscovered in 1956-7, Klami had actually re-written the thing in 1954. The 29-minute work on the disc here is the later version – revised, shortened and improved. Aho notes that it is the most regularly played Finnish violin concerto of its period, and its formal model is actually the Sibelius Violin Concerto. It doesn’t actually sound like the Sibelius, but going by what I hear, it really ought to be played everywhere.
The immediate impression I got was of Prokofiev. Aspects of the score are reminiscent of Prokofiev’s No.1, especially with regards to the some of the short solo violin motifs, the rising and falling chromatic themes, the snatches of winding woodwind and the underlying rhythmic bass lines. Like the movements of Prokofiev’s No.1, the three movements of Klami’s concerto also ends quietly. Try the unwinding little clarinet whirl which ends the first movement.
The Adagio possesses various themes for solo violin which are actually very lyrical, but Klami never allows the music to get sentimental. The final Allegro giocoso is a masterpiece. Again it recalls Stravinsky (trumpets, woodwind) and Prokofiev (solo violin), but I assure you it is a highly original work. Prokofiev’s No.1 ends with a little wink, Klami’s with two enigmatic bass notes – eyes left, eyes right – pianissimo.
There is nothing strictly atonal about the work, though it doesn’t sport Romantic melodies either. What it has is a certain purposefulness and an expertly orchestrated atmosphere. It has that eyes-darting-about feeling, a half-playful, half-grotesque quality which I associate with the Prokofiev No.1.
Violinist Jennifer Koh plays with conviction and excellent tone throughout her entire range. Silver medalist plus all special prizes at the 1994 International Tchaikovsky Competition, she portrays the dark score with an expert sense of its colours and mood. Her surname, Koh, suggests she may have South-East Asian roots, but she is in fact of Korean parentage.
Let us all slap our faces again, as I introduce the Suomenlinna Overture – written in 1940, lost it too, and rewritten afresh in 1944. The name refers to a group of islands near Helsinki which served as a fort in the 18th century. It is thus considered a patriotic piece – but lest you think it’s going to be Finlandia version 2.0 (or perhaps 2.1), it’s not.
But it’s quite fun! Showing how Klami – like Sibelius – had a “fun” side too! The opening theme sounds as if it came out of a Western! With a smiling gesture of welcome [0’56”], the strings sway into a relaxed “travelling” theme, with that “walking” rhythm [1’02”] so evocative of horses and cowboys. A slow and beautiful string theme follows, this time unashamedly sentimental. There is a trumpety passage in the middle which I swear could have easily come from Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. After a bridge passage, the “cowboy” theme reappears naturally and seamlessly, without one expecting it. It is cast grandiosely into the final moments, ringing our triumphantly.
The Lahti Symphony are their usual spectacular selves. A highly impressive and entertaining concert from start to finish.
Uuno KLAMI (1900-1961)
Pyörteitä (Whirls): Act 1 – Orch. Kalevi Aho
Violin Concerto, op.32
Suomenlinna Overture, op.30
Jennifer Koh violin · Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä
This review was kindly sponsored by HMV Singapore.
The classical section was huge back in 1998, you know.